Investigators removed an active meth lab from the Goose Creek apartment building where a fast-moving fire Thursday destroyed several units and killed three people, including a 4-year-old boy, authorities said.
Agents from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration removed the lab from the gutted, 16-unit building at Pine Harbour/Pinebrook Pointe apartments and hauled it away, Berkeley County Sheriff’s Capt. Rick Ollic said.
With the evidence collected, control of the building was turned back over to the complex managers, he said.
“There was an active meth lab,” he said. “That is a fact.”
Ollic would not say whether the meth lab sparked the fire, as many residents said they suspect. He also would not say if the lab was located in the unit where the fire is believed to have started, or if any of the three people who died were in that unit.
Ollic said investigators from the sheriff’s office, DEA and the State Law Enforcement Division still are in the very early stages of their review, and that more information would likely not be available until next week.
So far no charges have been filed. One man was placed in a patrol car and questioned at the fire scene, but no one was arrested, Berkeley County sheriff’s spokesman Dan Moon said.
The three people who died have been identified as Joseph Raeth, 69; Sammy Garbe, 4; and Morgan Abernathy, 19, all of Goose Creek.
Abernathy and the boy were found in the same apartment and Raeth was found in an adjacent apartment, Berkeley County Coroner Bill Salisbury said. The cause of their deaths will not be released until all test results are received, he said.
Searchers believe they have found all the people who were unaccounted for, and no more victims are thought to be in the rubble, Moon said.
Abernathy and Garbe were siblings, according to Ariel Carmean, 23, who said she and her housemates knew the family. Occasionally, Carmean said, she had looked after Sammy.
Several residents told The Post and Courier they believe the fire was caused by an explosion at an illegal meth lab operating in the building. One tenant reported hearing a popping sound before flames erupted.
Authorities carried on their work at the apartments on Harbour Lake Drive behind a gated entrance. Reporters were barred from entering.
Friday was the last day of school for many of the children who live at the apartment complex.
Many residents waited for the arrival of school buses outside the neighborhood’s gate. One talked of losing her engagement ring and her children’s nursery to the fire. Others spoke of the death of an older neighbor who would often walk his dog through the community.
That neighbor, Raeth, was a retired Air Force master sergeant, authorities said.
Phair Broderick, 27, who lives across a parking lot from the building that burned, said she sent her children to stay with their grandmother temporarily. She was worried about how the fire would affect them.
Broderick’s four sons often played with at least two children thought to be inside the unit that first caught fire. They would swim in the community’s two pools or play basketball at the recreation center.
She shed tears as she reminisced.
“When you have neighbors, they grow a part of you, and I’ve been crying since the fire,” Broderick said.
Like many residents, she said she had heard about possible drug activity in the building, though she said her neighbors were quiet and behaved. Some had complained to apartment managers about their suspicions. Others were afraid to get wrapped up in “business that wasn’t theirs,” Broderick said.
Residents said nothing was done to solve the problem.
Lynn Pike, regional property manager for Pine Harbour Investments, said those allegations are false, spurred by one resident who gossiped based on pure speculation.
“We have had no complaints of suspicions that there was a meth lab over there,” she said. “If we had, we would have taken immediate action.”
Broderick said she had seen no evidence of the meth-making operation that some have talked about.
But she recalled the scene Thursday afternoon, when residents tried to attack a man thought to be responsible for the fire. She distanced herself from the chaos and from the smoke and flames that she said had an eerie appearance, as though chemicals were burning.
“It’s a very big shock that no one would do anything about that,” Broderick said. “This is a reality check. You have to know your surroundings and know your neighbors. It’s a big wake-up call for all of us now.”
For 82-year-old Kay Andersen, who walked by the complex Friday, the inferno came as no surprise.
Andersen moved away from the community five years ago, when it seemed as though the place was being engulfed with violence, she said. She said the construction of a story-high wooden fence that prevented rubberneckers and reporters from viewing the scene Friday seemed to only make it worse.
“The people were very friendly, but there’s a lot of BS going on too,” Andersen said. “You have to be very careful wherever you live. This stuff could happen anywhere.”
Pike said the 428-unit complex, built in 1976, is home to many good people. She said her staff worked into the wee hours of the morning Friday and already have found other quarters for the 36 tenants displaced by the fire.
The fire destroyed eight units, but eight others appear salvageable and the management plan to rebuild, Pike said. She said she is troubled by the rumors and speculation surrounding the blaze, and hopes people will reserve judgment until the investigation is completed.
“In a tragic situation like this, we need to let the families relax and let them be at ease,” she said.
Thad Moore of The Post and Courier contributed to this story.